Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Death On The Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay

As a fan of Persephone books, Dorothy L. Sayers, and golden age British crime 'Death on the Cherwell' was always going to sound like a winner to me - published in the same year as Sayers 'Gaudy Night' (1935), and set in the fictional Persephone College (apparently based on St Hilda's which Hay attended between 1913 and 1916 - it wasn't until 1920 that Oxford awarded women degrees, Cambridge somewhat later) there's a lot here I was bound to enjoy. I hadn't realised that 'Death on the Cherwell' was contemporary with 'Gaudy Night' until I read Stephen Booth's excellent introduction, comparisons between the two are interesting, I'm inclined to say that in some ways 'Death on the Cherwell' has aged rather better.

I was 13 when I first read 'Gaudy Night' (I can still remember retiring to bed with it one very wet weekend) and it made me fall in love with both the idea of Oxford and the possibility of higher education. Reading it again a couple of years ago I still think it's a brilliant description of academic life and harriet Vane remains a character I'm deeply attached too, but Sayers increasing infatuation with her detective, an underlying snobbery, and occasional mentions of eugenics were all distractions that reminded me of the books vintage and Sayers own shortcomings. 'Death on the Cherwell' isn't as ambitious in it's scope but there's not much in it that needs explanation, excuse, or apology.

Four students gather together on a boat house roof late one January afternoon with the object of forming a secret society dedicated to cursing the bursar. Disconcertingly for them just as they're about to swear an oath the dead body of the bursar floats past in her canoe, odder yet she's clearly drowned so what's she doing under the thwarts of the canoe... The police are called in but the girls are anxious to do their own investigating, they're also anxious to protect their own. Fortunately the Scotland yard man is both intelligent and sympathetic and without much trouble the students tell all they know and the mystery is quickly unravelled. It's a sad story with an interesting twist at the end which makes this stand out from the standard murder mystery. Apart from that Hay is also rather good on undergraduates - as she observes on page one "Undergraduates, especially those in their first year , are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood- earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again...". I live on the edge of a campus, it's a description I recognise. Hay definitely likes her undergraduates though (as do I for that matter, they make good neighbours) the group her are nice young women caught in that moment between childhood and adult life when everything is possible.

Hay doesn't really examine university life in the way that Sayers does, but curiously both express distaste for the presses habit of referring to women students as undergraduettes (it must have really irritated the educated women of the day), and she also makes the point that Cambridge doesn't at this point offer proper degrees for women (which puts it at a distinct disadvantage to Oxford). I enjoyed 'The Santa Klaus Murder' which the BL bought out last Christmas (most seasonal) but this book is much more, it really does make me regret that Hay only wrote 3 books and correspondingly pleased that she's back in print. It's light entertainment but almost everything about it is delightful (the one exception is an overly excitable foreign student) and as a piece of golden age detective fiction it feels very fresh. 

13 comments:

  1. I have about 50pp to go & I agree with you - although I've remained fonder of Gaudy Night & DLS than you have! I also noticed the undergraduettes reference. Looking forward to finishing it after tea.

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    1. I still love DLS and Gaudy Night will always be a favourite book but there reading her now I find there are things that stick a bit for me, partly because she's much more ambitious in her scope. The Hay book is simpler but a lot of fun and as you'll know by now the ending is... well it wasn't quite what I expected and I think it's really good.

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  2. I've read this recently and enjoyed it as much as you did. I'm not a Sayers fan, though I've read them all, and I agree that this stands up really well in comparison. Hay's third novel. Murder Underground, is equally enjoyable. Excellent review -- thanks!

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    1. I do like Sayers but these days it's with a bit of a but. I thought this one was great fun, a little bit tongue in cheek, and quite clever in the end. Maybe because she isn't as ambitious as Sayers in her writing (or as self consciously intellectual) I think it stands up really well. I prefer my crime on the 'cozy' end of the scale and this one is hard to beat for that.

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  3. This sounds fascinating! I am always on the lookout for 20s mysteries. In my latest blog post, I listed the library books I got this week and one of them is a fantastic-sounding 20s mystery.

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    1. Aha, then this should be a treat if you can get hold of a copy!

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  4. Being a lifelong devotee of Gaudy Night, I can't believe I've never heard of this, and am rushing to buy! Thank you thank you thank you!

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    1. I think the stuff the BL have been unearthing has been quite obscure (I'd never heard of it either, but I'm no sort of expert so it would probably be more surprising if I had) this one is great fun and a good companion to Gaudy Night. It doesn't have the scope of GN and nobody like the wonderful Harriet, or even any of those brilliant cameos but is non the less a very enjoyable read.

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  5. I read this a few weeks ago and I did enjoy it too, though thought it VERY Enid Blyton. They don't make young jolly hockey sticks female undergraduates like that any more! But it was good, gentle entertainment with a nicely thought-out plot. Lovely review, Hayley.

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  6. I agree a bit Enid Blyton and quite jolly hockey sticks and I also agree that female undergrads are rather more likely to be found in the pub than this lot but outside of fresher's week and the last few days of term when they're a right bloody nuisance with their noise and carry on my undergrads (I live over a student pub on the edge of campus opposite halls of residence) are a surprisingly quite, polite, well behaved bunch. They seem very young to me and take themselves very seriously so basically I found Hay's undergrads recognisable predecessors of todays lot.

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  7. I love university-set books, so this one goes straight on my list - esp. with your mention of Gaudy Night. BTW. I was in Cambridge in 1998 when the 50 year celebration of awarding degrees to women was on -- disgraceful, of course, that they only did so in 1948. About (I think - it's a long time ago now!) 1000 women who had completed degree requirements before 1948 came back and received their degrees at the 50 year celebration. It was such a moving event, esp. as I was at a women's college at the time where many of these women had been students themselves.

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  8. It came as something of a surprise to me to realise they got around to it so late and probably explains why Oxford features in so many more novels by women. Cambridge is so lovely though, and Kettle's yard is possibly my favourite gallery ever.

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  9. I have yet to read it (the bookshop was shut) but I can't help feeling that the death may have been caused by punting from the wrong end; I mean it is the Cherwell and not the Cam for heaven's sakes.

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